Santiago Spam
(May 24, 2003)

May 16, Los Angeles.

Aware of the inversion of the seasons in South America, I packed cold weather clothes into my daypack. In my desire to travel light, I had foregone a backpack and sleeping bag; these would not be needed for the 5-star hotel in Santiago. Hopefully, I would be able to rent camping gear while trekking the Andes in Bolivia and Peru, where night-time temps would drop well below freezing. I grabbed a pair of winter socks to stuff into the daypack, but 30 rolls of film claimed most of the capacity and I was forced to remove another pair of socks to make room. A second bag containing my business attire would be stored in the Santiago airport nine days later at the conclusion of the official USC business school trip, before flying to La Paz, Bolivia.

The travel guidelines provided by the university requested that we: 1) arrive at LA International Airport at least 3 hours before our departing flight; 2) do not dress like Americans; and, most importantly, 3) do not act like Americans. I arrived at the airport 2 hours before departure. Surveying the masses, it was impossible to miss a cluster of backwards baseball caps, U.S. flags, USC sweatshirts, and one rubber chicken dangling from a coat pocket; the rowdier half of my classmates had not yet arrived. I moved towards the end of the check-in line, but was blocked by a squat woman with frizzy hair who reeked of stale cigarettes. From between the gap in her nicotine-stained teeth she rasped, "Robert Harrison?" I gazed aversely into her bloodshot eyes. "Yes?" She, a representative from the school´s travel agency informed me that she had made a slight mistake in booking my plane tickets. The error had been discovered 10 minutes earlier by my Bolivian travel partner, Steve, wile making small talk with the check-in agent at the ticket counter.

Agent: "So what will you be doing in Mexico?"

Steve: "Mexico?"

Agent: "Yes, you´re flying to La Paz Mexico after Santiago."

I had wondered why they were routing us through Mexico City for our transfer; luckily we discovered the reason before then.

If corralling 63 MBA students in like herding cats, then controlling them on an international flight with free alcohol is like coordinating butterflies. The rubber chicken landed in the lap of one of the unfortunate passengers scattered amidst our group in the rear of the airplane. The free alcohol did not exactly help matters. With all of the socializing and singing, the scene resembled not so much a cocktail party as it did a drunken fraternity party. While contemplating whether I should ask the stewardess for a parachute rather than endure 12 more hours of the mayhem, I was granted respite by the flashing Fasten Seatbelt Sign. The pilot instructed everyone to get back to their seats because of air turbulence; mysteriously, I could detect none.

I waited in line to pay the Chilean entry fee, which was only required of the citizens of four countries:

Mexico $15

Australia $35

Canada $55.

The price for the U.S. had been recently changed to numbers twice the original size, $100, apparently reflecting Chileans´ attitudes towards George W. Bush´s foreign policy.

Two buses carrying 63 MBA students rolled through the frozen darkness towards Santiago. From the East, the sky lightened as coral cloud fingers probed westward over the Andes. By the time we arrived at our 5-star hotel downtown, The Intercontinental, the choking fog obscured the nearby 16000-foot peaks.

May 17, Santiago.

3:00pm. The phone next to the king-size bed awakened me. Steve had organized an outing to an artisans´ market on the outskirts of the city. We walked among the network of tiny shops and stumbled upon a central square where the setting sun irridated the red clay soil, the stage for live theater. We joined the spectators that were enjoying a humorous rendition of Zorro in the golden light of sunset.

The twelve of us enjoyed our desserts as we curiously watched the performance on a restaurant stage, a Hawaiian luau dance performed by grass-skirted Chileans that were backed up by a samba band. I realized that many of us were drunk not because we were watching the performance, but because we were inadvertently creating our own. Despite the fact that I was out to dinner with twelve of my most reserved classmates, including two "chaperones," we Americans were definitely louder than the entire rest of the packed restaurant. Steve punctuated this realization when he stood on his chair, raised his wine glass, and shouted, "Vivan mis amigos!" We may have been drunk, but not nearly as drunk as our classmates we bumped into in the hip, Bohemian section of town, Suica.

On someone´s advice, the entire lot of 27 of us had crammed into a handful of taxis that took us to the Bayo Vista section of the city, somewhat more dubious than Suica. Our cabbie stopped at the designated address for the club, Feria, but I could see no evidence of it. Only an unmarked black metal door tucked between two residential buildings indicated that we were possibly at the correct place. Outside, there were no signs, window, nor other patrons; still, all 23 of us (one of the taxis got lost) crowded into the concrete hallway between the two metal doors. By the dim light of the one incandescent red light, we negotiated a group admission rate with a chain-smoking man behind a glass booth. Upon receiving our money, someone on the other side of the metal door unlocked the restraining padlock and the pulsing bass sounds of a DJ spilled out. Inside, we found two smoky rooms with retro 1960´s furnishings, including white vinyl couches, globe lamps, and square red lamps. The place was nearly empty, as was to be expected at 1:00am, when most Chileans were just beginning the night´s social activities. By 3:00am, the place was packed. Through the noxious haze of cigarette smoke, I could no longer see the DJ above the dance floor. Eyes watering, I retreated from the scene to call it a night. Even the stifling Santiago smog had not prepared me for this.

May 19, Santiago.

4:00am Monday morning. I´m awakened by the phone two feet from my head. "Who in the world would possibly be caling me at this time," I thought to myself as I promptly fell back asleep. Apparently, several of the guys had become bored after the conclusion of the wrestling tournament in their room (actually, a succession of rooms they had been forced to vacate after several complaints to the hotel management) and decided to crank-call other students.

7:00am. My daily routine began with Spanish lessons. I turned on American-language TV shows and, following the Spanish translations on the bottom of the screen, spoke aloud in my best Spanish accent. Hey, at least I had an academic pretense for watching "Charlie's Angels." Still, the exercise seems to be of limited use. While I´m more or less able to speak some limited Spanish to Chileanos, I´m unable to interpret the incomprehensible replies. Chileanos seem to take national pride in talking Spanish faster than any other Latin Americans. Exacerbating this Guinness-world-record phenomenon is their penchant for swallowing at least one syllable from every word. For example, "Buenos dias" becomes ¨Buen di."

8:40am. 63 students in business attire listen attentively to the presentation at Banco Santandera. OK, maybe not attentively. About 20 heads are bobbing, while several of the aspiring professional wrestlers are either snoring or drooling.

2:40pm. I, along with most of the other students, am awakened by the applause of the two or three people who managed to stay awake for the presentation by the speaker at the Nestle plant. A tour of the plant does not exactly increase my urge to buy Nestle products. While it may have been the guy handling wafers without gloves, it was more likely the posted quality inspection results next to the Oreo machine-a knife and a mangled spatula retrieved from the dough of one machine, wire and a coin found in cookies.

May 19, Santiago.

9:00pm. Our team met to discuss the presentation we were to give to the executives of Chile´s largest telephone company in exactly 12 hours. While we had finished a draft presentation two weeks earlier, two members of the team lobbied for revampėng the entire presentation. After an hour of debate, the rest of us acquiesced. I was given the task of creating a new 5-minute section to present. At 1:30am, we reconvened for a rehearsal and failed with flying colors.

May 20, Santiago.

7:30am. Our team once again rehearsed; some glitches had been worked out, but many kinks remained. I had to restrain myself from strangling Steve when he suggested that I changed the focus of my speech. Yet, 10 minutes before the presentation, I had a change of heart and decided to wing it. On the top floor of the tallest building in Chile, we amazingly pulled it off without any problems.

May 21, Santiago.

We drove our rental "Jeep" to the coastal city of Valparaiso, hoping both to escape the smog and to watch a parade. Unable to find a parking spot at the parade, we drove to the neighboring town of Vin de Mar for a leisurely lunch. In the restaurant, the news on the TV displayed a riot, replete with shielded police, water cannons, and indiscriminate beatings of protestors at the parade; good thing we had decided to have lunch instead.

May 22, Santiago.

Professor Schorr is a slight, awkward man. With an unnatural smile and nervous mannerism, he has a distinct talent for making everyone of our host speakers feel uneasy. His predominantly bald head seems to match his personality. Still, while he may not be socially adept, he means nobody any harm.

In the throes of a late-night/early morning drinking binge, one of the aspiring wrestlers thought it a good idea to shave his hair in a manner that quite remarkably mimicked Professor Schorr´s trademark baldness. Being somewhat more sober during the day, the student wisely chose to minimize his interactions with the professor.

Having lived in LA for nearly a year, I thought that I had become accustomed to smog. However, I was in no way prepared for the pervasive pollution chronically hanging over Santiago. Not only did it obscure the Andes, it obscured buildings as well. It was no wonder that cars were allowed to drive only on specified days, according to license plate numbers. We finally received relief from the smog on a visit to a paper mill south of the city. At last, I was able to marvel at the snow-capped Andes, which dominated the Eastern horizon.

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